One of the highlights of a full day here in Clearwater, Florida — spiritual mecca for the Church of Scientology — was meeting Darth Xander and watching him chase a Flag bus to inform Sea Org members that they can leave if they want to.
In town over the weekend to celebrate L. Ron Hubbard’s 101st birthday, DX experienced some weirdness and I asked him to tell the story, which I included in the video above. Check it out, and then after the jump join us for some additional Flag Land Base enturbulation.
I jumped at the chance to meet Darth after seeing some footage that he’d put together a few days ago. Some of you have probably already seen it.
DX positions himself in a narrow road — an alleyway, really — next to the Clearwater Bank building where Flag buses drop off load after load of young (and some old) Sea Org members brought in from the drab apartment buildings and motels that they call home while they train or work at Scientology’s spiritual headquarters.
This weekend, he caught some remarkable images as he spotted coming off the buses some very, very young passengers with the crowd of Sea Org members. I mean, this stuff is frightening…
Just a few weeks ago, we heard from journalist Bryan Seymour about a young man who said he signed a Sea Org contract and began working long hours at only eight years of age. From Europe, there was recently a report which we’re still trying to confirm on our own of Scientology ads being served to an app that plays nursery rhymes. And here at the Voice we’ve been showing you advertising put out by church orgs that uses small children to make fundraising appeals.
The longer you look into Scientology, the more the silly space opera stuff fades to the background and the more its questionable practices come into focus. Like its apparent focus on younger and younger kids. And worse — its separation of children from parents through the policy of disconnection.
I was reminded of that, yet again, in a big way yesterday during my tour of Clearwater. I had hit the highlights — the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Super Power Building, the Sandcastle, the Hacienda Gardens, and had gawked at Sea Org members and security men, and they had gawked at me.
But then, I had a remarkable conversation at the Starbucks in the center of town. Yes, the same Starbucks that Janet Reitman speaks of in her book, Inside Scientology, where she was visited by the very dramatic local church spokeswoman, Pat Harney.
My own encounter was less comical.
The woman who met me for a cup of coffee yesterday was a classic example of an “independent” Scientologist — someone seemingly as proud of their accomplishments in the church as they are that they were able to walk away from it.
This woman was a pleasure to talk to. She’s a regular reader of this blog, and had asked to see me when she heard I was coming to town.
She wanted me to know how hard she had worked for so many years to become one of the most highly trained people in her area, and then how an issue of Scientology’s propaganda magazine, Freedom, had backfired and had actually made her more curious about a 2009 blockbuster expose in the St. Petersburg Times, “The Truth Rundown.” She was stunned what she found there.
“To discover that things were in such a condition — what the fuck did I give my life for?” she said, hoping I’d understand how devastating it was to give up the church after more than 20 years.
But that wasn’t what brought the tears.
Today, she’s doing well, auditing as an independent Scientologist, unafraid of the church after an apprehensive first couple of years out (but still cautious enough to ask that I not use her name).
But a decade back, she was so dedicated to the church, she thought she was doing the right thing by disconnecting from her own son.
He had ditched the Sea Org, she explained, because he had stumbled on some things on the Internet. Then, he had become so dedicated to fighting Scientology, he went to college to become a lawyer so he’d be able to challenge the church in court.
In other words, he was a classic “suppressive person” or “SP,” the kind of excommunicated former member that other members in good standing are required to remove completely from their lives — to “disconnect” from them — or risk being declared SPs themselves.
She knew she was in the right, according to church policy, to cut him out of her life.
It’s what happened next that she didn’t account for when she made that decision.
Her son was killed in an automobile accident.
There was no good reason for it. It just happened.
In 2009, when she read the expose by journalists Joe Childs and Tom Tobin and finally came out of the church herself, there was no reunion with her son who would have, no doubt, been thrilled to see her leave David Miscavige’s organization behind.
Struggling with emotion, she told me, “I want anyone who is disconnecting to think about that — will they ever really get another chance to be with that person again?”
I told her I had often wondered about Scientologists who, seemingly with such ease, turn their backs on a child or a sibling or a parent. Do they expect for that separation to be a temporary one until the SP later “sees the light” and returns to the fold?
She said that is exactly what is going on.
“I didn’t disconnect from my son because he was a bad SP who I needed to get away from,” she said. “Disconnecting from them is supposed to snap them back into your life. I thought I was being good to my son.”
I learned much during my tour of Clearwater yesterday, and filmed a great deal of video, most of it for a story I am putting together later on. But for now, I wanted to report how what started out as a somewhat lighthearted day to celebrate L. Ron Hubbard’s big birthday surrounded by Sea Org members busing this way and that had suddenly turned into something far more meaningful.
My thanks to the woman who told me about her son. She knows who she is.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he’ll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week’s best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology’s wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.